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The Play of the Hand at Bridge

After the bidding for tricks, the play begins. Either your team or the other team makes the final bid. Let's pretend that you make the final bid — for nine tricks. Therefore, your goal is to win at least nine tricks in the hand.

If you take nine (or more) tricks, your team scores points. If you take fewer than nine tricks, you are penalized, and your opponents score points. Here are a few important aspects of playing a hand of bridge.

The opening lead and the dummy

Once the bidding determines who the declarer is (the one who plays the hand), that person's partner becomes the dummy (no offense intended). The person to the declarer's left (West, assuming that you're South) leads, or puts down, the first card, called the opening lead, face up in the middle of the table. The opening lead can be any card of West's choosing.

When the opening lead lands on the table, the game really begins to roll. The next person to "play" is the dummy — but instead of playing a card, the dummy puts her hand face up on the table in four neat vertical rows, one row for each suit, and then bows out of the action entirely. After she puts down her cards, she says and does nothing, leaving the other three people to play the rest of the hand. Ever heard of the Sphinx?

The 13 cards that the dummy puts down are also called the dummy. Yes, the dummy puts down the dummy. It doesn't make much sense — but there it is.

Because the dummy is no longer involved in the action, each time it's the dummy's turn to play, you, the declarer, must physically take a card from the dummy and put it in the middle of the table. In addition, you must play a card from your own hand when it's your turn.

The fact that the declarer gets stuck with playing all the team's cards while the dummy is off munching on snacks may seem a bit unfair. But you do have an advantage over the defenders: You get to see your partner's cards before you play, which allows you to plan a strategy of how to win those nine tricks (or however many tricks you need to make the final contract).

Following suit

The opening lead determines which suit the other three players must play. Each of the players must follow suit, meaning that they must play a card in the suit that's led if they have one. For example, pretend that the opening lead is a heart. Down comes the dummy, and you (and everyone else at the table) can see the dummy's hearts as well as your own hearts. Because you must play the same suit that is led if you have one, you have to play a heart, any heart that you want, from the dummy. You place the heart of your choice face up on the table and wait for your right-hand opponent (East, assuming that the dummy is North) to play a heart. After she plays a heart, you play a heart from your hand. Voilà: Four hearts now sit on the table. A trick! Whoever has played the highest heart takes the trick. One trick down and only 12 to go — you're on a roll!

What if a player doesn't have a card in the suit that has been led? Then, and only then, can a player choose a card, any card, from another suit and play it, which is called a discard. When you discard, you're literally throwing away your card, knowing that it's worthless because it's not in the proper suit. A discard can never win a trick.

In general, discard worthless cards that can't take tricks, saving good-looking cards that may take tricks later. Sometimes, however, the bidding designates a trump suit (think wild cards). In that case, when a suit is led and you don't have it, you can discard from another suit or take the trick with a trump card.

If you can follow suit, you must. If you have a card in the suit that's been led but you play a card in another suit by mistake, you revoke. Not good; if you are detected, penalties may be involved. Don't worry, though — everybody revokes once in a while.

Playing defense

Approximately 25 percent of the time, you'll be the declarer; 25 percent of the time, you'll be the dummy; and the remaining 50 percent of the time, you'll be on defense! You need to have a good idea of which card to lead in the first trick and how to continue after you see the dummy. You want to be able to take all the tricks your side has coming. Remember, defenders can't see each other's hands so they have to use signals (yes, legal ones) to tell partner what they have. They do this by making informative leads and discards that announce to partner (and the declarer) what they have in the suit they are playing.

Winning and stacking tricks

The player who plays the highest card in the suit that has been led wins the trick. That player sweeps up the four cards and puts them in a neat stack, face down, a little off to the side. The declarer "keeps house" for his team by stacking tricks into piles so anyone can see how many tricks that team has won. The defender (your opponent) who wins the first trick does the same for his or her side.

The player who takes the first trick leads first, or plays the first card, to the second trick. That person can lead any card in any suit desired, and the other three players must follow suit if they can.

The play continues until all 13 tricks have been played. After you play to the last trick, each team counts up the number of tricks it has won.

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